Contemplation/Signs of the Apocalypse: The Human, Self-Subscribed, Extinction

Peter Singer, writing in the New York Times blog, The Stone, offers a fascinating contemplation regarding the ethics of continuing to bring human life into a world that is bound to cause suffering and unhappiness; make this the last generation.

The idea is actually more simple than it sounds.  Considering that experiencing life in this world is bound to cause a degree of suffering, and being ethical beings with a desire to eliminate said suffering, the logical route would be to stop producing offspring and to allow humanity to go the way of the dinosaurs (negating birds of course).  Of course this is nothing but a thought experiment as it would be nigh impossible to ensure the complete participation of 6.5+ billion people.  But it is a worthy thought experiment nevertheless.

When looking at the philosophical discipline of ethics there are many different views and ideas as to how we apply ourselves to moral lives.  However I believe that ethics in general seems to approach one universal ideal and that is the alleviation or, failing that, the reduction of suffering in the world.  How this is achieved has many different routes and views depending on what kind of ethical philosophy you subscribe to, but regardless the pursuit of less suffering seems to be a pinnacle point in all ethical thinking.  With that in mind then, why should we desire to continue to produce subsequent generations who can suffer themselves?

Well the answer is simple really; because we’re living things.  Life is incredibly hardwired for the pursuit of continuity.  However, conscious life seems to be a bit problematic.  On one hand it strives to live and reproduce just like everything else, on the other it must balance its own impact on its world and others of its kind.  I have wondered before whether or not consciousness necessitates ethics?

Humans deal with guilt for production of suffering in different ways.  Religions in general prescribe routes to alleviate suffering, with the flip-side that failure to practice correctly results in increased guilt and thus more self-suffering.  Some religious views like Janism have made the alleviation of suffering such a central tenant that some practitioners will ultimately starve themselves to death with the goal of preventing causing suffering to others.  The idea of ahimsa, a no-harm philosophy, is very important to the Jan view of the world.  Could we all produce a goal of causing no further harm by eradicating ourselves?

Of course, the choice may not be our own.  Much of our impact on the world, as well as any number of outside elements, may ultimately result in the extinction of the human species.  In the scenario of producing no further generations I am made to think of the movie “Children of Men,” an excellent film, which looks at a dystopic future where no children have been born for 18 years.  In the movie the infertility of the world population is not a chosen scenario, but instead of some known origin (though there is strong suggestion throughout that it may well have been from our own doing).  Interestingly about “Children of Men” is the portrayal of a startlingly violent world, even with the consideration that there are no new generations being born.  Would a self-subscribed sterile species continue down such a violent path until its complete eradication, or would there be a kind of clam peace that settles over humanity in the knowledge of its own inevitable demise.

Of course, in a self-sterilized eradication scenario, we may think of the last man or woman, who would eventually and inevitably exist.  What would this individual reflect upon in the final days of humanity.  Would they look at all that we had done and think that we were a success, or would there be a lingering guilt for a world we left scarred, even in our passing?  How far does the guilt really matter though?  In a world devoid of conscious entities, is there anything to be guilty about?  Is there any suffering?

Here is the core of it perhaps.  Suffering exists because there is a consciousness that can contemplate, and in may cases, intimately involve itself in the very act of suffering.  But in an existence without that consciousness, does suffering have any existence what so ever?  Do ethics and philosophy even exist or matter in a world (universe?) which possesses no conscious life to consider them?  We cannot know once we are gone and the road this thought experiment leads down is most certainly a one way street.

So whether the world would be better off without humanity is not something that we as a surviving species are likely to determine anytime soon.  Our living instinct is the continued pursuit of survival, even with the disconcerting awareness that our survival is bound to cause suffering for others and the world as a whole.  Survival instinct, at this time seems to prove a more powerful force than any form of ethical philosophy.  And I give credit to Mr. Singer for choosing an optimistic ending to his article by holding to the belief that as a species we are getting better and creating a world that has less suffering.  Surely there is still a long way to go, but with the right mindset perhaps we can continue humankind into a world with significantly less suffering.

~ by Nathaniel on June 7, 2010.

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